Sunday, March 22, 2015

Travel Notes from Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam


Today was the hottest day of my entire life. I could not imagine how I survived in such an unbelievable day when the temperature skyrocketed to almost 40 degrees Celsius. And i thought the Philippines was undeniably warm. To tell you honestly, the only thing that kept me going was the reason to discover Brunei, my 20th country in Asia.

I arrived the night before at Bandar Seri Begawan International Airport, with just my backpack and my treasured wooden box i bought in Thamel, Kathmandu. The rest of my luggage was tagged direct to Manila. I reckon this was a really good idea so i don't have to worry about carrying with me three huge bags in my escapade to Brunei. Later on i would realize, this was a big mistake. 

I've heard not so good stories about Brunei, and most, if not all of my friends say it's the most boring country on earth. The reason why i still wanted to go is because i want to prove everybody wrong. I haven't set foot in this country, so i want to know the real answer myself. Of course, when 10 out of 10 people agree, then it must be true. 

I slept that night at the airport. Yes. I did. I still have some money with me to pay for a taxi, and book a room for the night. But i didn't. I arrived at the airport, and met about twenty Filipinos right away. Filipinos work in the airport, either as cleaning staff, concierge, store attendant, etc. And dare i say, the only saving grace of this country. I met this Filipino guy who was working on the night shift. He was the one who advised me not to check in at a hotel at the hour i arrived. "Trust me. There's nothing to do here", he said. Still not believing what he told me, i planned my next day rendezvous googling for places to see. Of course, there's not much apart from a couple of mosques and water villages. The airport has been under construction for years now. It's small but clean. Thanks to the Filipinos tirelessly sweeping the floors every few minutes to ensure that Brunei gets a good first impression from travelers.

I woke up the next day with still not a lot of people. Ha. Yes, there were passengers on stand by as most international flights to Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur leave early in the morning. I sat, and stared at people lining up, going to the terminal, and flying out of Brunei. This repeated for almost a hundred times until i finally said, i am going out to town. Another Filipino I met helped me store my backpack in the room. Now, with just a hand bag and my leather jacket with me, i finally went outside to get a feel of this country. Five minutes later, my cigarette not even finished, i went back inside. The heat of the day was scorching. It's unfathomable. I grabbed some breakfast and sat again. I was undecided to still pursue the trip to the city. But i managed like an addict, and totally killed myself going out to town. I met one Filipino who said that instead of riding a taxi, i could just totally wait for the public bus passing by the airport that ends up in the middle of the city. And so i did just that. I ran to ride the bus, where more than half of the passengers are Filipino. I paid the woman one Brunei dollar, and stared at the surroundings. It's not your typical South East Asian country where noise is astounding, surroundings arguably dirty, and the people always smiling. First impression of Brunei is that it's too hot for a normal person to handle. I found the people very stiff. The surroundings are clean, but then again, there's nothing outside of mosques.

When i arrived at the bus station, i went out for a cigarette break. It took me fifteen minutes to find a spot, where again, i didn't finish my cigarettes. I found that i could totally give up my smoking because the temperature in this side of the planet is unbearable.

Finally, i found a seat at the park adjacent to the water village. It's nice to see water, but i reckoned it helped to make the temperature even worse. The bridge was impeccably situated with a good view of the market that day. Every Friday, KG Kianggeh Open Air Market turns into a throbbing spot for locals to sell Malayan food, vegetable produce and fresh seafood. After battling the crowds, i arrived to a junction that goes back to the highway. By the Kampung Water Village, a couple of locals sell a trip on to the opposite side where hundreds of houses built on stilts can be found. I declined, although i know i could help these men by simply taking the underwhelming trip.

On the southern exit from the Jalan Cator bus station, one could walk to Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. It was beautiful but i didn't feel the need to stay too long. The picture above explains how every few seconds clicking the camera, i ran for shade. I was melting like cake in downtown Bandar and it was not a pretty sight. On the other hand, what's particularly nice about crossing the streets in Downtown Bandar is that the cars literally stop for you so you can pass by. I've never seen anything like it anywhere in Asia. This rule deserved a thumps up for me. The security guard by Sir Muda Omar Ali Saifuddin Park was also extra nice to me. He even pointed me to a good spot so i could take a decent photo. When i came back, after a few minutes of photo shoot, i said my thank you and moved on.  

Seeing Jollibee at Yayasan Shopping Mall was a dream. Eventually, i found myself inside lining up to place orders. However, i was told that they only allow take-outs as the Friday prayer was coming up in an hour. The reason why i wanted to dine in is to cool off. So i left the fast food chain, and decided to explore the mall instead. I found that most of the shops are starting to close. I just bought a couple of quirky magnets for home and decided to leave. At this point, i was breaking up into tiny molecules because of the gravity of the heat. I found a quiet spot by one of the parking lots and sat there for minutes contemplating where else i can go. For the first time in my adventurous life, i have given up. 

I am pretty sure Brunei is a terrific country to visit. But my personal experience, proved otherwise. I find it now painful to realize that this country so rich, could not afford more reasons for me stay. I look back with what my new Filipino friend said at the airport. He was right all along. I rode the bus an hour later, going back to the airport. I still had a couple more hours to spare, but i knew i was ready to say goodbye to Brunei forever. In a few years, i may decide to come back and explore the region closest to Borneo. Bandar Seri Begawan is totally out of the picture. I came back to the airport and started chatting again with the Filipinos. I've never met so many Filipinos at a given time. All of them talked to me like their long lost relative. They've been helpful from the minute I arrived until before i leave.

When the Royal Brunei Airlines counter was finally open, i fell in line and learned that i was a few kilograms overweight. I tried to argue that i flew from Bangkok with the same baggage but i was not fined. But since i wanted to leave the country already, i paid an unbelievable price of $20 for my excesses. When i was screened, i was told that i had to leave my deodorant. I told the man that it's almost finished, and definitely not the 100 ml maximum limit for liquid as per rule in any international airport. When i tried to explain that it's for personal hygiene, he walked up to me and became very angry. He told me, "do you want to leave or not?" He also added, "you don't smile at me, i am just doing my job.". I kept silent and walked away. I never bothered to argue because even if i did, he wouldn't understand me anyway. Of course, he was trained to be closed minded. He was right when he said he's doing his job. I wished i could have told him he's doing it the wrong way.

I went to find a seat as i wait for my flight to Manila, still thinking of my experiences in Bandar Seri Begawan. Surprisingly, i felt calm and at peace. It's good to be surrounded by happy Filipinos eagerly awaiting to leave Brunei for the Philippines. There's obviously something wrong with the picture. Just like the man who tried to hold me because of 10 ml deodorant, i didn't bother arguing. This goes out to the lady who fined me for excess baggage when i am just transiting in this country, i smiled and paid right away. 

To sum it all up, i will never talk about Brunei Darussalam after this blog post. I swear. There's no use arguing when the other ear is already closed, just like this country.

P.S. Want to know the icing in the cake? Royal Brunei Airlines lost my baggage. The luggage that has been tagged direct to Manila (MNL) was actually transported to Melbourne (MEL) by their staff. After almost a week of waiting, i finally got reunited with my bag, with no compensation. 

I arrived in Manila from my two-month backpacking trip across Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand and Brunei. It surely felt so good to be back HOME. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Travel Notes from Siam Ocean World, Bangkok, Thailand


I've always wanted to go to Siam Ocean World because it is one of the largest aquariums in the world. In the past, I've always taken this place for granted, pursuing more adventure outside the country's capital. So, when i had a chance two weeks ago, i immediately grabbed the opportunity. I was suppose to go here a day earlier and at night, but i stumbled upon a couple lost Filipinos outside Pratunam. With nothing much to do, i spent a few hours helping them get from point a to point b. I've always believed that this is the beauty of traveling. And when you see a fellow country men, the first instinct is to help them. Talking to them made me realize how i see places now so differently. I will tell you more about this in the coming days.

When we said goodbye, the aquarium is already closed. I went back to Rambuttri, my home in Bangkok for a few days. I spent the rest of the night, trying out local food and drinking beer to end this hot and steamy day in Bangkok. 

Siam Ocean World is located inside the Siam Paragon mall. To be exact, ride the escalator one level down to start your adventure. Honestly, i had no idea what to expect. I haven't been to an aquarium before, and it is only fitting that i am spending my last few days of this trip in an inspiring place. I just wanted to relax and spend a quiet afternoon oggling at marine life. 

I love the ocean so much. If you ask me, ocean or mountain? I know the answer already in a heart beat. While i was searching for places to go around Bangkok that I haven't been to yet before, Siam Ocean World was top on my list.

I paid the package which includes the trip inside the ocean world, free pop corn and soda, and the 5-D movie. I didn't do the behind the scenes and fish feeding tour which is supposed to be included in my ticket for the simple reason that i am not interested. Seeing marine life this close is an exhilarating experience. I've never seen such number of fish and corals. My absolute favorite was the experience seeing these flesh eating sharks circling around a human head figure made of rock because i doubt if ever i will see them in this lifetime. It helped that the soundtrack to the room was spot on. Ocean World now includes live penguins in one of the rooms. I've never seen a penguin in my life so that's a life-changing moment right there. In total, i think i spent about four hours inside because i was taking my time. With about two thousand photos, and hours of video footage, i think i spent my money wisely. Although the 5-D movie was anti-climactic, it still is a good time to sit back and enjoy the funny movie. 

If you will ask me if it's recommended, i would gladly say yes. Although i know kids will find this place extra-special, adults can find ways to spend time inside aquarium with delight. I sincerely wished my nephews were with me inside, as i know they will have a mind-blowing experience, too. 

Before i left, i spent an hour rummaging at the shopping section. I bought a total of five stuffed marine animals to give my nephews a souvenir of the place. This is the least that i could do to share my happiness. I miss my family. And i always pray that one day i can bring them all to my most favorite places in the world.

A few days after, i left Bangkok excited to see my family and eat familiar food again, but heart broken because i know i will miss the people i have met in this trip.

Of course, i will not end this trip without a bang. Sadly, i got so disappointed at the last leg of my journey that it made me realize one important thing. Sometimes, when people say do not go, you have to listen to them. There's a reason for that, of course. More of this story on my next post.

Kob Khun Krap, Bangkok!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Travel Notes from Bayoke Sky Tower, Bangkok, Thailand


It took me one whole day to get to where i am right now. I woke up feeling so relaxed and refreshed this day. I wanted to get out of Khao San Road the soonest possible time. Not because i didn't like the place. It was the birthplace of my Asian Escapade, for chrissake. I simply wanted to explore more places in Bangkok, those places i haven't visited in the past. After spending an absolute delight in the heart of Siam (my most favorite destination in Bangkok), i knew i wanted to end the night on top... of Bangkok. 

After a relaxing ciggie break outside Siam Paragon, i asked a couple of locals to point me where i could watch the city from a sky tower. They recommended that i head out for Bayoke Sky Tower. True enough, the view from the top was mind-blowing. True, there are more peaceful places to watch Bangkok from 80 floors up but all of these places are hard to reach, and you need more money to stay and relax. For example, one bar that i have checked is hidden along Sukhumvit Road, where prices for drinks almost equal to my breakfast, lunch and dinner for the day. What's worse is the place had awful reviews. It was a no-brainer for me to choose Bayoke Sky Tower.

To get to Bayoke Sky Tower from Siam Paragon is very straight-forward, albeit, a very long walk. And the walk wasn't a walk in the park, it was torture. The afternoon Bangkok heat that day was excruciating. I was wet in sweat. Finally, after passing by countless number of hotels, convention centers, bridges over the river, a dozen eateries, and too many shopping outlets, i reached my destination. I felt so disappointed seeing more than a dozen tourist buses filled with too many tourists. I can already foresee what it must be like on the tower. I can definitely see in the eyes of the tourists how tired they were, and these were all painful to see. The line was long to the ticket counter, and i almost backed out with a fear of being trapped with too many of these tourists. I told myself, i have come to far, and going back to where i was would be a stupid idea. So, i braved the crowd and fell in line. Less than fifteen minutes later, keeping my space in an elevator filled with ten camera toting tourists, and arguing with a concierge who've seen too many tourists that being polite is the least of her concerns, i have stepped on the rotating observatory deck of Bayoke. I came right in time. The view of the whole city from the top, as the sun is about to set, was one of the most peaceful moments of my trip. It's quite surreal to think that in just a matter of minutes, i can find solitude in the heart of one of the most chaotic cities on the planet. 

I paid a couple of hundred bahts to enter the tower but it was worth it. I just wished it could be cheaper for those not dining in the restaurant. The good news is that my ticket comes with one free drink at the bar. So while others were enjoying their beer, i ordered their most expensive mocktail.

Bayoke Sky Tower could have been one of my most favorite places in Bangkok, if only there were less tourists who know nothing but too shout, laugh, and chat in decibels as high as the tower. I understand that getting here is a happy experience, and sharing precious moments with loved ones can be overwhelming. But always remember, you're sharing moments with strangers, too. It's a public space, not your bedroom. These strangers may want a quiet time, and are definitely not interested in whatever you're doing. It's called sensitivity, and these tourists ( i don't want to mention the nationality but i guess you know already), surely don't have it. 

After spending three hours on top (could have been six), i finally left. Minutes after, i was back on the ground, with noises from honking motorcycles, merchants bartering with tourists, and a whole lot noise pollution. It became clear to me, i was lucky to be on the ground. At least, the noises here unstoppable. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Prayer for Japan

A new beginning for Japan
REPOSTED IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO PERISHED DURING THE 2011 JAPAN TSUNAMI AND EARTHQUAKE

The colors of the autumn leaves are enough to leave me a lasting impression how wonderful it is to wander around Kansai. 

Five days ago, the news broke out of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in North East Japan. Soon after, Japan NHK TV reported a major tsunami swept away cars, trucks and houses in Onahama City in Fukushima Prefecture.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Reaching the Stars at Rembrandt Hotel, Quezon City, Philippines


STORY: After graduating from the oldest university in Asia, a few months have passed and i got a call to work at the number one television network in the Philippines. For almost four years, i have spent a great deal of my time in the vicinity where the network is located, looking for places where i can have a quiet time for myself to have a date with my laptop. I was writing for TV shows, then. I went to several restaurants, cafes and hotels.

I've already stayed at Hotel Rembrandt before. I would remember reserving a table at the lobby, ordering snacks and typing away the coming week's plot. I would fondly remember my time there, and rushing to print the sequences and present it to the whole production team soon after. I am pretty sure, i even went there to meet with my bosses, hoping for an approval for a plot for an upcoming show. So, to say that Hotel Rembrandt was memorable for me, would be the truth.

When i was invited to go back and experience the hotel once more, i gladly said yes right away. After my stint at Abs-Cbn years ago, going back to the same places where i used to go was something i fancy doing. There's a nostalgia to it, and it's good to reminisce good times with good friends like Christian of Lakad Pilipinas,  Carla of Blissful Guro and Julius of Lakwatserong Tsinelas, which made this particular experience worthwhile. Darwin of Tracking Treasure was late coming from work, but i was glad he could join us for the over night rendezvous. Ron of FlipTravels was also there to spend the night with us, all the way from Singapore. 

I have lived in Quezon City all my life, and going to Rembrandt Hotel is only but a 15 minute ride away. Obviously in love with Quezon City, i reckon the city is a good place to base yourself when you're in Manila. So when you're at the city of stars, it's only rightful to stay at a hotel nearest to the stars. Hotel Rembrandt is only less than a minute walk from the entrance gate of Abs-Cbn. If you fancy seeing your favorite showbiz royalties, you know you'll have a good view from here.


When i arrived at the hotel, the security staff opened the door right away. Not many people know that when you're staying at a hotel, the door should be opened for you all the time. This is common courtesy of the hotel staff for its guests. I knew this was a good sign of things to come. I got a seat right away at the lobby. Christian, Carla and Julius were all there happy. We only get to see each other once every few weeks, so it's always special seeing them again and again.


The Lobby
Hotel Rembrandt changed a lot for the better. It was already beautiful then, but now they are living up to the expectations of affordable grandeur. The windows were shrugged with draped curtains and glass blocks have been added to attract more light. There were already a couple of guests sitting, and the lobby is fully staffed so orders are fast. There were a couple of beautiful women dressed to impressed so that made my afternoon more exciting. Later on, i would find out that a wedding is coming right up. It seems Hotel Rembrandt is a popular choice for weddings and debuts, and it is rightfully so. 



As we approach dinner, little by little, the food got served at the buffet table. What's extra charming is the brilliant pianist keeping us company with his lovely music. After traveling for a couple of months overseas, the smell of fresh peanuts roasting on the Kare-Kare caught my attention right away. 



Then, the carefully placed plate of sashimi and sushi were all a sight to behold. The other popular dishes were served: chicken with gravy, chapsuey, beef with broccoli and fish fillet. The desserts were equally sumptuous. I've never had that much sweets in one seating. The cupcakes and pastries were all delicious.



I tried them all, and i am glad i did. Over-all, the dinner is one of the best I've had in my life. And it was truly relaxing to listen to great music again, and enjoy a good meal with the company of good friends.


The Executive Room
We were billeted on a two bed room suite. It was huge and airy, and more than enough for the four of us. The sheets were fresh, and the duvet was super comfortable. It also had a nice view of the surrounding streets, so it was easy to check where the party is at. Of course, i need not look elsewhere as the party is at Hotel Rembrandt in our room. A crazy amount of time was spent there just chatting about our previous travel experiences and plans for the future. We ordered a couple of beers and gulped each one as we laugh from night till the morning. It didn't end there, as we bought some more and finished till dawn.

The Malt Room
If we only had more energy to spare, we could have checked out the malt room where an array of premium liquor and crafted malt is on display. I fancy a few hours lounging there, and we could brew some more travel plans in the future. No worries as i am pretty sure i will be coming back here soon. 

Vida Verde Spa
A day at a spa is one of Carla's personal favorite things to do. So, she requested an hour session with a brilliant therapist. The morning was spent absolutely nothing, which i love. We watched cable television, ordered a couple more drinks, and just relaxed in the room. When she came back, I've never seen her so rejuvenated. After days of teaching in school, she deserved the queenly treatment at the spa. To all the women, read up and enjoy the Vida Verde Spa.

As mentioned earlier, Hotel Rembrandt is the place to stay for celebrity spotting. The night before, i was on an elevator with Julius coming from our beer shopping when we chanced upon seeing this celebrity. It was weird seeing this person up close, when we only see him every night during dinner. 


I went home that day embracing the torrential rains in Quezon City. I was drenched wet, but still smiling. I've had  a very good sleep, a delicious dinner and breakfast, and lovely chat with my really good friends inside one of the most comfortable hotels I've ever stayed in the city. Smile!

Rembrandt Hotel
Address: 26 Tomas Morato Ext. 1104 Quezon City
Phone Number: +632373333 Loc. 201-205
E-mail Address: rsvn.hotelrembrandt@ahmgi.com
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/hotelrembrandt

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Travel Notes from Kathmandu, Nepal - Bangkok, Thailand


I wanted to turn back time. If only i could have a couple more days to extend, i would. Nepal is such a great country to travel to. And as i type this in the comforts of my home here in the Philippines, i recall the fantastic moments of my last few days in the country.

I remember waking up really early on my last day. I knew i would not be spending another day, but only a few hours in Kathmandu. I went up to have my favorite special breakfast at the roof top of Kathmandu City Hotel. I talked to the waiters and cooks who work tirelessly to ensure i have something to eat first thing in the morning. I told myself i will never leave without us having a photo opportunity. To Shree Krishna, much appreciate bro the excellent service. Others may don't like the idea posing in front of the camera, i'd like to think otherwise. When you've traveled a thousand miles away from home, and meet the most beautiful people, i reckon you would do the same.

I left Philippines with two bags, i am leaving Nepal with five. As i went to the bank with Shiva to pay for my accommodations, i checked out a couple more shops to buy another bag so i don't end up having too many bags. I would rather have one oversize bag so as to ensure i don't lose them. Before i left, i said goodbye to Lamsal, Shiva and Ramhari. Lamsal gave me a Kata, which is a traditional Tibetan scarf given to guests during departure to ensure a safe voyage. Shiva vowed to connect with me on Facebook so i can meet my future wife. I kept the Kata with me, and waved my last goodbye to the awesome people of Kathmandu City Hotel. 

I rode the taxi going to the airport, and yet meeting kind Nepalese people never ends. My driver was friendly and honest. Again, the usual conversation piece of Jerik Gurung re-appears. And the thirty minute ride to the airport was hassle-free and a whole lot of fun. I arrived at the airport and smoked my Surya for the very last time. The line going inside the departure terminal was less manic than my last time. With a couple of foreigners snaking their way to get ahead, i stayed put. What's the worse that couple happen, not making in time for my flight? So be it. I have learned to accept the worst and welcome the best in Nepal. Staying for a few more days would be a delight for me. Sadly, I made it in time. Even though, i fell in a line that never seem to move. Many local people come meet their friends who're in line so they get in line, too. I've learned to accept that in any transportation hub in the country. Falling in line is only a suggestion in Nepal. 

I weighed my bag at the check-in counter, and realized i was still a few more kilos overweight so i had to take out some stuff from my check in. I always fly Thai Airways leaving Kathmandu because at economy i get 30 kilos check-in baggage. Remind me to fly Thai Airways again, this time going to Nepal.

I was seated on the left side of the plane but not on the window seat. I picked this seat because i wanted to check out the view of Everest for the very last time, hoping the passenger on the window side is kind enough to let me take photos. Good thing, i was a seated to an old chap from Melbourne. And instead of watching a film on the 7 inch screen, we talked about his girlfriend from Kathmandu, the bar he works in Melbourne, and his few hours transit in Bangkok, all this while we were enjoying our food. Once in a while, i would capture a couple stills of the himalayas. 

It didn't take long before i arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport. After the three hour flight, that was the only realization point that i have already left Nepal -- my favorite country in the world. Let it be known here, Thailand is one of my personal favorite countries in South East Asia. Having visited the country more than seven times now, i feel relaxed because i know may way around Bangkok.

The only thing i have forgotten to do was to exchange my Nepali Rupee to US Dollar. I have about ten thousand with me, and it was regretful that when i arrived in Bangkok, no bank would like to exchange my money. Up until now, i have no idea why. I remember exchanging my rupees last year at the very same airport.

As i pick up my baggage, i was left with a very crucial decision. I relatively had no money with me, at the start of my almost a week long trip to Bangkok and then to Bandar Seri Begawan, tired and hungry. I phoned home and asked for help. I left my baggage to keep and sprinted my way to Paya Thai via the city train. It only takes less than an hour, and 45 Baht to get to the stop. From there, i rode a tuk-tuk for 100 rupees. Last year, i rode a motorcycle paying the same amount. It's already a bargain, considering i am in Thailand already, and the Thai tuk-tuk drivers are the most aggressive in the world. I chanced upon a very quiet yet honest uncle to bring me to Khao San Road safely. Of course, I've had enough of the infamous street but i liked the location's convenience. I roamed around Rambuttri and checked in at a hotel called ViengTai. It's my most expensive stay yet after two months, but for the night, i wasn't hesitant at all. What helped me decide to stay is the staff whom i talked to; one spoke Filipino and the other guy was very helpful. I had a few hundred bahts with me which i spent eating barbecue on the road side while enjoying beer. 

It was a very long day, and a good sleep was something i was looking forward to doing since i arrived at the airport. I woke up the next day well-rested, and hungry. Good thing, i had buffet breakfast waiting for me at the lobby. After eating a ridiculous amount of pancakes and fruits, i was off to check the pool. It was a bit of a maze finding where it is actually. But discovering no noisy farang in sight made my morning extra wonderful. That's when i realized, i was staying at a fancy hotel. Having spent a lot of time in Khao San Road in the past seven years and staying at the seediest places, it felt weird that i had this bit of luxury, now when i don't have enough cash with me. 

After a good shower, and putting a fresh set of clothing, i found myself walking around Khao San. A few minutes later, i was already drenched in sweat. I manned up and walked until i reached the junction towards National Stadium. The humid afternoon of Bangkok totally killed me, so a tuk-tuk ride again was necessary. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Travel Notes from Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu, Nepal


I can't believe two months passed by so quickly. When i first arrived in Nepal a year ago, i knew i would be coming back again and again in this country. So it was not surprising that after the new year celebration in Manila, i was on transit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia bound for Kathmandu, Nepal. I still had the same guide book with me, which i bought for only 500 rupees at Pilgrims Bookstore in Thamel. A week ago, i learned of the unfortunate fire accident that affected a couple more stores beside the infamous book shop. Nepal didn't change a thing. It's still the same old country that i fell in love with. It's sharp contradiction to big, first world countries is one of the reasons why i love this country so much. I've written about the awful air pollution, the dirty alleys filled with so many things you will cringe seeing back at home, the unfathomable discipline of the people falling in line at entrances and bus parks. Yet, i have accepted everything there is to hate in this country. So, i guess this is love, huh?

I lied down at one of the cushions inside the Garden of Dreams in nearby Thamel. I paid 200 rupees to get inside, one of the few tickets i needed to pay in this country. I lied in there, away from the hustle and bustle of manic Thamel. It was quiet, more often weird to think that only minutes away, i was almost hit by a taxi cab. Not that its his fault, because he has no more space to drive around in. I thought i've never seen so many couples in one day. There's too many love birds expressing their love for each other. It's always inspiring to see love flourish. Earlier while i was looking for the toilet, i chanced upon a young couple kissing so passionately, i felt embarrassed for interrupting them. Valentine's Day passed by me nonchalantly.  I was walking around Kathmandu last February 14th. While 90% of the people I've seen were all in the company of their loved ones,i was there enjoying my steak at a fancy cafe. There are moments when i feel lonely in Nepal, without another hand to hold, or a warm body to embrace. But all were just some passing thought. I never felt sad because i was on a very long engagement with this country.

I spent about three hours inside the park. I've seen so many couples come and go, but i never left. I always thought that these moments do last forever. And in a year or two, i will always remember these instances, so precious and dear to my heart. 

Garden of Dreams is probably the most beautiful park I've ever seen. It's not too big, and not too crowded. It's very relaxing and convenient to go to. The park opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. I was there before dusk. 

It's hard to grasp how i felt there. At one point, i felt happy and relieved that my adventurous trip to the mountains is over. And falling on a cliff or in a gorge is all but a bad dream. But at the same time, i felt sad that i am a day away from leaving Nepal. But during my quiet contemplation here, i realized it's okay to be sad. Who on earth would be happy knowing this journey of mine is already coming to an end? Nobody. I will be back to Nepal for sure. I've kept my promise once. Hell, i can keep one more. 

Later that day, i went back to buy stuff for my family. I've bought a couple of shirts, accessories, and a handful of trinkets. I went back to the same shop by the junction to buy stuff for the home. Days ago, i met this young man in the shop. I've told him about my trip last year, and how i bought so many stuff for the home. This year, i came back to get some more. I promised him i will be back before i leave. After negotiating a good price for a ceramic brass plate, a couple of masks, carved wooden boxes, and a lot more Hindu signages, i thanked the manager for a good transaction. I saw the young man again, and showed my shopping bag. His smile was from ear to ear. I came back to my hotel, and saw Shiva. We enjoyed the dinner of Dahl Bat. So by this time, i could assume the saying Dahl Bat 24 hour Power. 

It was not a tearful night as i suspected. More so, it felt like i was going on a vacation. It felt weird that i felt like going on a short trip wherein fact i will be coming back home to the Philippines. Yet, i take everything in stride. This is how i felt, so be it. 

He then asked me one important question that i almost forgot all this time. Shiva in his usual curious face, "How many kilos do you have for check in baggage?".

Completely stuck with the words... kilos and baggage. I said to myself, "Oh,no!".

Friday, March 6, 2015

Travel Notes from Kathmandu City Hotel, Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal


I have already left Kathmandu but every single day, i always think about the people i have met, especially at Kathmandu City Hotel. I think it's God's work that i stayed at this hotel after discovering my previous hotel has been fully booked. I could walked to another hotel, a few meters away, and stayed there --one that is cheaper. But i chose this hotel because the minute i stepped inside, i knew i would stay here for a very long time. Little did i know, i would realize that this was one of the best decisions of my life.

Just today, i stepped inside a room, and gave the man my speech. I am very lucky with the opportunity that i have with me right now. One that i can never ever pass. I just spent the whole day maneuvering my life to another direction. One direction that i know will do me good, and the people I've met. I am the captain of my own ship. As i navigate my destiny, i knew that this was the path i wanted to take. 

I could have gone on another day trip outside Kathmandu, yet i stayed. I spent the last two days of my stay in Nepal at this hotel. I was transferred to the same corner room, although one floor down. It has the same feel, bit of luxury, located right in the heart of Thamel. The people manning the place are all professionals. In five years, i bet Kathmandu City Hotel will grow to become the number 1 hotel in Thamel. I didn't get paid for this. Heck, i never get paid writing stories here in this blog because i never allow it. This blog is the only property i have that's never measured by any number. Up until now, my mind hasn't changed.

The man on the left of the photo above is Lamsal. He is one of the most intelligent Nepali man I've ever met. After days of observing him, i realize how fast he thinks, solves guests' unruly problems, and gives suggestions. His shift is in the morning, the perfect person i always ask whenever i find myself lost between doing nothing for the day or going out to nowhere. He would offer me Masala tea all the time as he knows how big of a fan i am of the Nepali tea. I never paid for all those cups, mind you. I don't know if he's ever met anybody like me, who prefers doing absolutely nothing. The man on the right is Shiva. A father of two, a doting husband, who takes the night shift. After coming from a long day walking around, he's there as my sounding board for my unfathomable love for this country. He never fails to answer me from the dumbest to the most technical questions i have about the country. During my last few days in Thamel, i would spend evenings with him talking about religion, having a Nepali wife, power cut-offs and even vegetables. I would order Dahl Bat and eat with him, because after spending most of my two months eating alone in Nepal, a local friend would be awesome.

Today, i think about these people. And the brother of Shiva's wife will stick to my head for the rest of my life. Once you know his life story, you would appreciate life on a whole different perspective. You would think twice before spending something you don't need. You would think twice before honking your car because of traffic. He's ten years younger than me, but his story could very well fit a war veteran. He is one of the strongest man i know. And whenever i talk to him, i could see in his eyes the passion and struggle to become somebody in the future. You don't see that a lot in here.

You see, my mornings and evenings were all spent in this hotel. Not to enjoy the room but to enjoy the company of all the people working here. It sounds cliche that people here are nice because 99% of the Nepali you will meet on the road are all nice, too. But these people made a lasting impression on me because they treated me very nicely. It felt like i didn't stay at a hotel. It felt like i was actually living with them.

Every day, i would wake up late. I will eat my breakfast at the roof top terrace and i will always order the biggest plate of first meal in the world. I would sit for a while as i smoke my Surya, and chat with the young waiters. We would talk for a few hours before i go back to my room and shower. Then, i would go down to Lamsal and ask him where i can go. He always fixes my itinerary. After spending a ridiculous amount of time planning, i would then head out and change my plans again. I would come back late in the evening and say hello to Shiva. I would sit in the couch and talk about where i went that day. He would offer me Dahl Bat and we would eat up stairs while getting to know Nepal a bit more. I would relax for a bit in my room before coming down to watch TV with the rest of the crew. At first sight, people may think my days were boring. But i feel, i have finally settled and these moments are truly memorable.

This story is suppose to be a review of Kathmandu City Hotel but right at this very moment, as i type this, all i could think about are their kindness. All i could ever think about are the moments we've all shared in this home. 

In the remaining days of my stay in Nepal, talking to these people capped off my learnings of Nepal. And i could go on and on, but definitely, the prize possession of this country is really the people. I've never stayed in any country this long. There's only one reason for that. I love Nepal with all my heart.

I walked into the room today, with the brightest answers to every question. I walked and talked about my life, my career, my goals and aspirations. I've talked about the people I've met and my undying love for travel. I've talked about how i see my future. I wanted to do good today because i believe this is the direction destiny has brought me. I am doing this not only for myself but for the people i have met at Kathmandu City Hotel. These people served as my inspiration to do good because i know they are looking forward to hearing good news from me. And in return, i give them the greatest gift in the world --a glimmer of hope that they too can succeed.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Travel Notes from Chapagaon, Nepal


I had a choice: it's either i explore Chapagaon since i am already in Patan (Lalitpur) or i venture to the other side near Bhaktapur to Sankhu. I chose the former because it was more convenient. I reckon i can do Sankhu on my next visit. I found myself on the same walk going to Lagankhel Bus Park. As usual, the smell of jasmine, incense and burning fuel still envelopes the air outside the durbar square. I looked for a bus heading to Chapagaon, but instead of a bus, i found a mini-van. It appears as if there are only a few trips that day so i managed like a scout and rode on this particular van. Even if i only had half a seat, and the waiting time took more then 20 minutes on an enclosed dilapidated van, i was getting excited to visit Chapagaon. Again, most people I've talked in Patan know of the area but haven't visited which made me giggle in excitement. The mini van started to roll at around 12NN. The time estimates here are always conservative. The trip from Patan to Chapagaon didn't take too long. And the approximate 1-hour trip ended up only about 30 minutes.

When i arrived in Chapagaon, i saw a signage of the Bajrabahari Temple but all words are in Nepali. I trusted my instincts and went up to the gate. I walked further north and see the vast open woods. I've read about the rich bird sanctuary in this area. The sign in the north entrance helped me a little identify a few birds scrambling around the thick forest. A few minutes later, a blasting sound was heard. As i approach, i discovered a family dancing and obviously, on a picnic. On one side, a group of about 50 Gurkhas were stationed eating Dahl Bat. Chapagaon is almost forgotten. There were no tourists and you can only get by pre-reading as there's no information stated in any of the desk. But once you step in the square near the temple, you could almost imagine how it must have been hundreds of years ago. The temple is situated in the middle of the forest so it made the trip there more cinematic. There were a few elderly chaps sitting by the steps and bewildered by me. I smiled, and felt at home immediately. 

An hour later, i found myself walking east towards a highway overlooking the valley. I told myself that if i walk straight i will be lead to an even more amazing view. Of course, it wasn't the case. Walking for about 5 kilometers lead me to a dead-end. I stopped for a bit, and finished the remaining water i have in my bottle, and asked for directions. True enough, i was already located outside Chapagaon in an unheard town i sadly forgot. They pointed me to go back where i was and head south instead. I followed their advice and continued walking.

If the temples littered around Chapagaon were located in an isolated ground, this would definitely have the Angkor Wat and/or Bagan feel. But the structures were located along the highway, next to a house where a family of five lives, next to a shop where school products are sold, and definitely next to a water tank infiltrated by green molasses. As i walked some more, i realized how off the beaten path this place is. When i started taking photos of the house exteriors, everyone looked at me and they started chatting about me. I nodded in Nepali and told them i am a tourist, and continued on with my quest to take more amazing stills. At each direction, a dead-end appears, whether be it a steep cliff, or rice paddies. I saw an old man playing a flute in one corner. In this day and age, have you ever seen a man play the flute that's not for show? I paused for a bit and listed to him. His music is so beautiful that i have recorded it on my GoPro. Back at home, you would pay premium to watch a musician perform, here in Chapagaon, you end getting lost and you can watch a star reborn. I remembered someone asked me where i was from. And i remember telling the curious man about my home town. A few minutes later, i stumbled upon a seller. I was going to ask him for the bus to Lele Valley when he asked me if i was from the Philippines. This is how small Chapagaon is. People know everyone. 

After waiting for half an hour without any sign of a public bus heading to Lele, i decided to forego my plan and just stay in Chapagaon instead. The remaining hours lead me to public baths, even more emerald looking rice paddies and old local people impossibly walking up and down the gravel staircases. It's little instances like this that you feel how fortunate our lives are back in the comfort of our homes, where a taxi comes in handy to cool off during midday. This couple whom i met while i was scrambling to go on top must be aged between 70 to 80 years old. The old man is resting and catching his breath while the old woman is rubbing his back. I stopped for that moment. It was so beautiful to watch. This particular incident cemented my love for Chapagaon. Sadly, there were no hotels or guest houses in Chapagaon. If there was, i would have stayed at least a night here. 

The trip to Chapagaon satisfied my urge to visit off the beaten path places in the Kathmandu Valley. True, i couldn't find any restaurant serving food other than dahl bat and momo, and walking is the only means to go from north to south, but the feeling of discovering this place is so worthwhile. Chapagaon is a superstar. I could literally see Chapagaon to exist in every tourist's itinerary five years from now. 

Because at that day, i was going to no particular direction at all, i stumbled upon a farmer who wanted to help me get to where i want to go. But of course, it would be too hard for him to understand if i tell him that i just want to go for a walk and i'm heading nowhere in particular. He started smiling at me as i take continuous shots of the rice paddies and every cobbled step i see. Minutes later, he started to descend to another village and i saw him wave his hands to say goodbye to me. Oh, Nepal! I am so in love with you. ;) 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Travel Notes from Bungamati, Nepal


Leafing through my guide book, one morning, i thought of going to Bungamati. Some people don't even know where that is. Some locals I've talked to haven't been there, too. One morning in my Patan hotel room, i thought of visiting this small town because not much has been written about it. The curious in me wanted to know how Bungamati looks like in person. It is true that the longer i stay in Nepal, the more places i have been visiting. And i thank the fate, for if not my disappointing Bangladesh visa application and super expensive tour package to Bhutan, i wouldn't be here in the first place. 

Getting here was part-hard work and part-luck. The hotel managers say two different things when i asked how to get to Bungamati by public transportation. One manager says i ride from Jawalakhel, the Tibetan refugee district of Patan, the other manager says i ride from Lagankhel bus park, the main bus station of Patan (Lalitpur). I followed my instincts and walked going to Lagankel. It's nearer to my hotel, and less than a kilometer away from the durbar square. On the way to the bus station and south of the durbar square, i passed by countless number of shops selling from garlands to gold, from clothing to cups, and from sweets to salami. After a very rewarding walk, i finally arrived at the bus park. Surprisingly, it's more chaotic than Ragna Park located in the heart of Kathmandu. I went up to five different conductors asking where is the bus to Bungamati until i was directed to a bus bound for Bungamati. In the guide book,it says it takes an hour to reach my destination. After about 30 minutes and paying about 20 rupees, i was already at Bungamati Bus Station. The trip going there made me think twice how Bungamati really appears. We've passed by several apartments and condominiums first. When i stepped out of the bus station, the magic of Bungamati starts to appear. The single alley going to the heart of the town is old, rural, quiet and totally non-commercialized. I felt that my first minute there already the million dollar question: Is Bungamati worth it? Without a doubt, i must say.

It didn't take me too long to reach Rato Machhendranath Temple: the imposing white temple sacred to Newars. The small courtyard fronting the temple evokes simplicity. And the beating heart of Newaris is so apparent once you start gazing on the outskirts. People live every single day steps away from this magnificent temple. I saw a mother and daughter washing vegetables on one side, a couple of old men sitting by the wooden bench outside a shop, and more Hindus paying tribute by lighting up candles and circling the temple. Minutes later, a throng of pilgrims came and danced while on approach. There was music playing, and people start gathering. In minutes, Bungamati turned from a quiet courtyard to a fiesta place. Later, i found myself walking to quiet alleys penetrated by small doors. There were more people there, but unlike in the courtyard where people are dancing, in here men carefully carve an image of Shiva or Kali from a flat wood. The intricacy of the work will make you think twice before bargaining a few rupees for a souvenir. 

I walked east to discover children fooling around and playing with their friends. It is unimaginable to think that every single day, these kids do the same thing. Their playground is the single cobbled alley way that's witness to a couple of men playing cards, a neighbor blasting Hindi music, and a couple of shops who haven't sold anything in days. People know every one here. A nod here and there, one could sense the tight knit of the community looking after each other.

After quenching my thirst at one of the shops, i sat next to two old men. One of which still dressed handsomely in his Topi and earring. The other, obviously tired and hungry, pauses for a break. Later on, he rode his bicycle again with his wares. This moment made me think more about my father, and how much i think he misses me. I've been away for two months now, and have walked to the highest and lowest points in the Kathmandu Valley. I have started a conversation with kids and adults. I have shared with them my thoughts and aspirations. And i miss hanging out with my old man.

I walked to the west, and found some more houses. People stare at me more as these people haven't seen much tourist. If only they can realize how unbelievably beautiful their town is, they would then understand why i ogle at every direction in sight: crumbling Newari houses, playful kids always joking, old men and women whose charisma are so unfathomable.

Instead of hopping on another bus, i walked to reach the neighboring town of Kokhan. It is here where emerald gardens arise, and the people even more surprised to see a tourist in their home town. I spent a couple more hours here, catching the last glimpse of the sun for the day.

Less than an hour away from Patan, and the scenery has already changed so dramatically. I couldn't figure out how a bridge of just a few kilometers has left this area so noncommercial. About a month and half ago, i was on the other side of Bungamati river, in Kirtipur and Chobar. Separated only by a narrow river, yet the vibe is totally different. Bungamati is even more rural than Chobar and i think the latter has relatively been unspoiled. 

I went back to Patan an hour before sunset, coming back from Bungamati. I enjoyed a hearty dinner at Cafe De Patan before retiring for the day. The chicken cutlet was really good, so was the vegetable friend rice. A new discovery I've had is that Patan could also be a good base for day trips around the valley. Don't you think?